Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Dual Play: When Playing With Yourself is a Gameplay Mode

Shmups have, at times, been credited as one of the most challenging genres of games as a whole, if not the most challenging altogether. The simplicity of controls and visuals allows for a heightened level of challenge on the player's part, requiring all of those awesome coordination skills of mind, body, and willpower. So it comes as a kind of surprise that a certain gameplay mode has been implemented into the community, both implicitly and explicitly, that at least doubles the difficulty of the genre's challenge, that mode being what is known as "dual play."

This is not to be confused with "double play," in which two chaps sit next to each other and discuss why their strategy for only being responsible for half the screen isn't working. "Dual play" is a style of playing wherein a lone player (being either exceedingly brave or blissfully ignorant) will take the reins of both of the ships / warriors / boats / schoolgirls / pig women that would have otherwise been piloted by two mortal humans. The mere sight of this spectacle is always a treat for everyone, including the player himself, the spectators who admire such bravery, and the corporate owners of things that accept quarters / tokens / yen.

It would appear hard enough to handle 8-directional movement, a fire button, a bombing button, and a couple thousand bullets careening towards you, but here we have 16 directions of movement, two fire buttons, and two bombing buttons. And a couple thousand bullets careening towards you. This requires many more fingers than one is used to, as the pinkies become the most reliable assets in arcade setups. I can't even imagine what added stresses the brain goes through. It's already doing its thing at maximum capacity for single play, as the right half controls movement and the left half controls firing (and wiping the sweat of victory from the brow). It's not like selecting "dual play" grants your brain an increase in activity (or even possibly 2 more halves for computations). You're stuck with the same two hemispheres of thought you had before, only this time they both control everything. At least to me, this sounds like quite a conflict of nerves upstairs.

It's not too bad for games on Playstation hardware, as the controller allows for the advantage of symmetry to guide control. The thumbsticks control the ships, the front shoulder buttons control firing, while the back shoulders control bombs. I suppose the same is possible with the Wii's classic controller (more notably the improved one that doesn't let your thumbs bump into each other), and the Xbox360 controller can certainly accommodate similar stylings, though breaking away from symmetry with the sticks. The real crowd-pleaser is in the arcades, where both sets of controls are in the same configuration, but your hands are not. With stick on the left and buttons on the right, this means an entirely different story depending on which hand we're talking about. The left hand's pinky and ring finger take control of the ship, while the index and thumb take responsibility of firing and bombing. The reverse happens for the right hand, which I assume has an easier time as the stick requires much more dexterity than pushing buttons.

None of this dual play hand placement interested me until I saw a particular set of videos on YouTube showcasing a phenomenal player (VTF-INO) tackling dual play in Ikaruga. The intriguing part was the inclusion of video of his hands synced to gameplay (and quite appropriately filling in those black gaps on the sides of the vertical display of the game). Oh, and even better - there's that extra button in the game that lets you switch polarity on the fly, furthering the separation of tasks within the ranks of the fingers.

What I'm most curious about is why this gameplay method hasn't been addressed directly. Sure, it's in the two latest installments of Raiden, but it doesn't feel like the game's been designed for this gameplay (which I'm pretty sure it hasn't). It's more of a tacked-on mode that's been added to appease the dual players from arcades who want a similar experience at home. Co-op features are just about as bland as dual play, but at least there was some effort made. In gunRoar, your two boats can connect a tether and fire bullets from the midpoint, requiring much coordination of formations. I believe that's also a feature in Battle Garrega, so the idea's been around for quite a while. And shooting behind each other in many games will create hybrid firepower, making for some fun combinations. However, I still don't feel it's been developed and built upon. At all. How sweet would it be if there were a co-op mode that actually required both players to work along with and depend upon each other? I'm thinking along the lines of the experiences found in Gears of War, Little Big Planet, and Four Swords Adventures. You work together to help each other out; not for the sake of just dishing out twice as much firepower (of which is oftentimes halved in strength, but don't worry about that), but for the sake of helping a player out who will soon be helping you out, only to have the two of you working together to fight a greater evil, the two of you with designated tasks that are required for a successful mission.

As much as I'd like that to happen in double play, I'm not as much asking for the same thing with dual play. It may provide you with guidance for where to place each ship at any given time, but that's just one more thing to worry about (or two, if you're still keeping track of all the elements at hand), let alone being in control of so much maneuvering, dodging, firing, bombing, dying, cursing, etc.

And now, an amazing man with amazing hands.

If you understand everything that's going on in the video, both visually and under the hood, then you must be the player himself. Otherwise, it's probably best to go my route and just smile, nod, and appreciate a spectacular performance.

[cross-posted on Gamasutra]

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